The Winemaker Who Hears Music In a Glass of Wine
The wines at Douglas Ayres' California vineyard resort sing to him in perfect harmony.
After Douglas Ayres takes a sip of wine, he holds the glass up to his ear—he’s listening.
Sometimes he hears a musical instrument. Other times, he hears a chorus or a chord.
“We smell our wine, we taste our wine. Well, I listen to it—I put the glass to my ear,” said Ayres, 60. “It’s always interesting to see peoples’ faces when I do that. It’s not just about the audible qualities of the wine; it’s about tapping into the soul of the wine.”
He also listens when deciding where to plant trees or where to hang a piece of art at Allegretto, his vineyard resort in Paso Robles, California. The name is a nod to Ayres’ musical intuition — the word “allegretto” signals to musicians to play at an upbeat tempo—but the unique way he perceives his surroundings goes much deeper than sounds.
Ayres isn’t just listening. He also says he’s tapping into the spiritual energy and life force of the land, the grapevines, the architecture, and everything in between, carefully considering every tiny detail to create a harmonious experience for people who visit or drink his wines.
“When I’m in France, going to the quarry to get the stone, I make sure that there’s a resonant quality to the portion of the quarry that we’re cutting,” Ayres said. “I have a way of measuring the symbiotic connection before anything comes here. Of course, the music of architecture is a silent music to most people, but for me, I hear it. I feel it.”
Ayres’ unconventional approach to design, architecture, and winemaking was born from tragedy.
In 2006, Ayres got the kind of phone call that every parent dreads: his 15-year-old son Dylan had died in a car accident during a weekend ski trip.
Ayres tried to get back to work, developing properties and building hotels for Ayres Hotels, the family business. But ultimately, his pain and grief were too much and he took a sabbatical, spending three years traveling the world and studying various religions in search of spiritual guidance and healing.
That journey set in motion the plans for Allegretto, a deeply personal project that Ayres poured himself into when he returned to work.
With his newfound spiritual knowledge, Ayres contemplated every facet of the 20-acre property, from the orientation of the building itself down to the placement of more than 300 chandelier crystals, incorporating ancient building and design principles of symmetry, proportion and geometry. He felt Dylan’s presence throughout the construction process.
He first purchased the hilly plot in Paso Robles in 2011, then devoted himself to planting grapevines and building the Tuscan-inspired resort, which opened in the fall of 2015. Ayres produced the first Allegretto wine with grapes grown on the property and his nearby ranch in 2013.
Ayres says he believes the music and other forms of environmental communication have always been inside of him—he just didn’t start listening until after his son’s death.
“I came out here at night, during the day, at sunrise, at sunset and I would feel the life force of the land and I listened to the land and designed the property in collaboration with the spirit of the land,” he said. “Now, most developers don’t talk like that, but that’s fine. That’s just the way it is. I take this very seriously because, by working in coordination with the land, I’ve seen the beneficial effect for people who come here.”
Sculptures, paintings, carvings, and other artifacts from around the world, hand-selected and situated by Ayres, fill Allegretto, many highlighting different religions or cultures. Outside, a sonic labyrinth invites visitors to become more mindful as they wander around its circular paths and listen to soothing, motion-activated tones. A French-inspired abbey, olive and fruit trees, and serene garden walking paths also encourage guests to slow down and reflect.
Many guests aren’t aware of the property’s spiritual influences—they simply feel relaxed and at peace among the art and beautifully manicured grounds. It’s a luxurious home base for exploring San Luis Obispo County.
But for those who are more in tune with energetic fields and sacred geometry, Allegretto feels more like a sanctuary than a hotel.
“It’s a magical place,” said John Henry Park, a longtime friend who often visits Allegretto with his wife to get away from everyday life in Las Vegas. “There’s a lot of conscious, intentional architecture on the property and the energy of the vineyard is infused into the fruit.”
Though Ayres’ philosophies may at first seem a bit unorthodox or far out, people who spend any amount of time with him come to understand and appreciate his approach. He also happens to be incredibly likable and gives off a benevolent, caring energy that even skeptical people find disarming, says Park.
Plus, Ayres’ approach is working. Not only is Allegretto successful—guests return time and again and the company has spent little in the way of advertising—but Ayres has also found joy and a sense of peace in his life that’s palpable to others.
Today, you’ll often find him wandering the hotel grounds, cheerfully leading tours, chatting with guests or encouraging the kitchen staff at the on-site Cello Ristorante & Bar.
“Doug seems to see things in ways that others don’t,” says Jim Roos, president of Ayres Hotels. “It’s authentic, it’s real. Am I in touch with nature or energy or the central force in the way Doug is? Probably not. But every time I have an experience with Doug, I think I better be more open to it because look where it may lead me. He’s taught me to open my mind to all the possibilities.”